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Lake Forest is moving away from at-large elections to district-based elections after the City Council finalized a map to avoid a potential lawsuit and create a district that potentially could be won by a Latino.

Currently there are no Latinos on the City Council. The council will vote next month on whether to adopt the map.

Despite disagreements over keeping communities together, breaking them apart completely, reducing the population deviations between districts and what defines communities of interest, council members voted 3-2 for the map that attempts to keep communities and neighborhoods together while creating the near-majority district for Latino residents near the 5 freeway.

Councilmen Jim Gardner and Andrew Hamilton, during the Nov. 21 meeting, opposed the map.  

“We are forced down this road and I think there was a lot of people in this community who came out and spoke in favor of 116 …. I think the fairness is well-preserved in 116,” Mayor Scott Voigts said during the Nov. 21 council meeting. “We’re not going to have a utopia map.”

Map 116b is the finalized districting map for the City of Lake Forest Credit: CITY OF LAKE FOREST

The council decided on 116B, after reviewing eight different versions based on three earlier maps. Districts 2, 3 and 4 will be up for election next year.  

View an enlarged map and a breakdown of the districts here.

The switch to district elections comes after attorney Kevin Shenkman, of the Malibu-based firm Shenkman & Hughes, sent a letter in April that warned the city’s at-large system disenfranchises Hispanic voters and isn’t in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.

According to 2017 demographics data on the city’s website, the Lake Forest population is nearly 84,000. The city is 66 percent white, 28 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian and 2 percent black.

The new district 5, which straddles the 5 freeway, is 47 percent Latino. Councilman Dwight Robinson asked if the city could get sued by not having district 5 up for election next November.

City Attorney Mal Richardson said that issue isn’t entirely addressed by the California Voting Rights Act and cited some provisions in the law.  

“That purpose is to protect minority communities that have been harmed by racially polarized voting. So there’s an open question there, I think,” Richardson said. “But here, where there is simply no possibility of creating a minority-majority district, I think that argument wouldn’t go too far.”

Richardson said not putting district 5 on next year’s ballot poses less of a risk compared to the initial challenges in Shenkman’s letter.

“The risks of challenge when it comes to sequencing are far smaller when it comes to risks of the existing challenge,” Richardson said. “The council can certainly take the steps being discussed without significant fear of that exposure.”

The Council voted 3-1-1 on having districts 2,3 and 4 be on the ballot next year. Hamilton voted against it, while Voigts abstained.

“I personally believe the districts don’t belong to any one of us,” Robinson said. “The  most appropriate way of doing this is drawing numbers out of a hat … the first three numbers are the ones that are on the (2018) ballot.”

Robinson’s proposal garnered support from Hamilton.

But Gardner disagreed and said the districts where the incumbents live whose current terms are up next year, should go first.

“The fact is you (Hamilton), Scott (Voigts) and I are up in 2018,” Gardner said. “So it should be districts 2,3,4.”

Hamilton warned any move other than a random drawing could give the appearance of the Council trying to protect incumbents.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the city. I don’t want my own political future to be a deciding factor for me. I’d rather say, ‘It’s out of my hands — it’s a random draw … if that’s the way it works, that’s the way it works,” Hamilton said.

The city is slated to pass an ordinance that switches to district elections Dec. 5.

Shenkman’s letter is the result of a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed in October, 2016 that provides an out-of-court process where attorneys can work with cities to move toward district elections. Once the city receives a demand letter, like Shenkman’s, it has a timeframe to begin public hearings and study the city’s racial make-up.

Under the law, attorneys have to wait 45 days after the city receives the letter before they can take any court action. The delay is to give cities time to pass a resolution of intent to switch to district elections, which provides more time to draw and select maps and draft an ordinance to switch to district elections.

Shenkman also represented a client in a joint lawsuit against Fullerton last year, before the out-of-court process became law. A settlement mandated Fullerton let the voters decide to switch to district elections or not in 2016, when 53 percent of voters voted yes on district elections.

Like Lake Forest, the Fullerton City Council also struggled with which districts would be up for election first and grappled with the legality of considering incumbents during those discussions. Fullerton will have its first district-based elections in 2018.  

Mission Viejo is undergoing the same process that Lake Forest is wrapping up as a result of a demand letter sent over by Shenkman.  

Council members and residents in both cities have decried Shenkman’s demand letters and said the cities are being forced into district elections because trying to fight it in court is futile and could cost millions in attorney fees, as happened to Palmdale in 2015. Shenkman also was involved in the Palmdale case.

Since then, the Palmdale case has served as a cautionary tale for cities facing district elections challenges.  

Meanwhile, a similar demand letter from Shenkman was sent to the city of Poway in San Diego county, which spurred former Mayor Don Higginson to file a lawsuit in Federal court last month that challenges the California Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional because cities have to draw districts based on race, which violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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